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Reading Serially: The Digital Resurrection of a Victorian Experience?

2014 June 21

By Eleanor Reeds

Eleanor Reeds is a PhD student and instructor in the Department of English at the University of Connecticut. Her research focuses on issues of genre and form in the transatlantic nineteenth century, and she blogs from The Ivory Tower.

image from the Research Society of Victorian Periodicals <www.rs4vp.org>

Exactly 150 years after Charles Dickens first published Our Mutual Friend, readers around the world are taking part in an online reading project led by Birkbeck, University of London that attempts to recreate the original experience of encountering the novel through monthly installments. A spate of anniversaries in recent years has sparked similar projects, such as the 2009 The Woman in White project through which participants received weekly segments of the novel via email. The evolution of the Internet has inevitably led to other digital tools being employed in order to offer an interactive and time-bound reading experience as, for example, characters from Our Mutual Friend have been appearing in the Twittersphere. (Perhaps unsurprisingly, Mr. Podsnap has been making liberal use of the hashtags #sogladoftheopportunity and #iamsure.) Approximating the original process of serial publication through which the now classic Victorian novels emerged and invoking a reading public that chooses to be governed by such conditions of production seems to enable a more intimate understanding and appreciation of these novels. These initiatives’ strongest appeal is an affective one: they offer an apparently authentic experience that is both social and emotional, reviving a way of reading that appears to allow us to re-engage with the cultural power of works of literature. Most crucially, they offer a return to a temporal structure for which many people feel a great sense of nostalgia.

In a global and digital world, fears abound that the speed of our experiences has reduced their quality. Miranda Lambert, the country music star, can currently be heard—ironically, of course, on a multitude of electronic devices—lamenting the demise of snail mail, payphones and enduring marriages: “It all just seemed so good the way we had it / Back before everything became automatic.” The phenomenon of periodical publication offers a rich experience of delay, allowing desire and excitement to build through anticipation: think of the crowds rumored to have gathered at the New York docks to hear the fate of Little Nell in 1841. Deferred enjoyment offers to a modern readership what we think we’re missing out on, although it has survived in different forms. On demand and catch up services appear to have sounded the death knell for television as a communal experience akin to that of reading aloud in groups, particularly in a working class context of limited literacy and funds, during the nineteenth century (although the desire to binge watch Orange is the New Black may have resuscitated this for a brief moment!). Yet popular weekly series such as Game of Thrones still offer a similar time-bound experience—with a concomitant plentitude of cliff hangers—to that of Victorian periodical publication. Indeed, the ability to watch and re-watch an episode any time after the release date has brought television in some ways closer to the periodical reading experience.

Not all developments in newer media parallel periodical publication, however. The absence of commercials interrupting our viewing is certainly an attraction of many catch up services as we want to avoid distractions from the main event. However, these very distractions are what might be most interesting to us as scholars of Victorian literature. Luckily the digitized edition of Our Mutual Friend the project from Birkbeck is utilizing –provided by Queen’s University Belfast—does include some of the advertisements that originally appeared alongside Dickens’ words: not only are many other books proffered to the reader, but also whisky, tea urns, glass chandeliers, billiard tables, black lead polish, telescopes and crinolines (“They never lose their shape!”). In our retrospective acts of digital engagement with periodicals, our interest is often attracted by the “literature” that posterity has confirmed as deserving such a special status, not the paradoxically revealing “detritus” that surrounds it. The way in which digitized archives necessarily isolate individual articles for the purposes of searching can make it a little too easy for us to believe we are paying attention to context when we may in fact be ignoring the experience of encountering an installment of, for example, Hard Times as part of an ordered series of different written artifacts, diversely authored and belonging to many different genres.

The need to bear this caveat in mind is crucial not only in our own research but while introducing literary texts to students who may not already be familiar with the now ubiquitous single volume copies of “Classics” that inevitably appear in university bookstores. Digital tools provide a wonderful opportunity to engage our students in the breadth of Victorian thought and the many ways in which this was articulated. To take another ever popular Victorian novel that began its publication history in 1864 and to which the British Periodicals database gives us complete access, we might ask what it might mean to read an issue of The Cornhill Magazine in which Molly Gibson’s excitement at the prospect of a new bonnet for a country festival in a pre-Reform Act era is related alongside an obituary for the political economist Nassau Senior, a travel essay on Monaco, and a soldier’s comments on the Limited Enlistment Act. Elizabeth Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters might appear very differently in such a context and the question of what defines different forms of writing can be effectively foregrounded, demanding our students pay attention to style, purpose and so on. Providing a reading experience characterized by the periodical form can also encourage students to conceive of literature as a corporately authored series of texts that are complicit in social, political and commercial relationships.

The affective and phenomenological aspects of reading serially—whether as part of communal initiatives or independently constructed projects—thus provide rich material for those professionally interested in the Victorian period. For example, the frustration experienced by modern readers of the American novelist, Frances Harper, because installments of works such as Minnie’s Sacrifice have still not been found, can certainly evoke the potential disappointment of an original reader who simply couldn’t find an issue they missed. However, we must acknowledge the limitations of any such apparently unmediated access to the reception of texts in historically and culturally distanced settings. The ease of digital resources suggests that the archive of periodicals merely awaits our attention: the artificiality of any constructed delays between installments for a modern readership is unavoidable. The time that has passed between the initial reception of Victorian texts and our reading of them today is a gulf that cannot be ignored. This is why I find it particularly refreshing that Our Mutual Friend is also being re-imagined on Twitter for a new generation with a shifting understanding of social communication that—as the Victorian periodical did before it—asks us to re-consider what it might be to read literature.

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